By Jenna Fryer
AVONDALE, Ariz.: Jimmie Johnson won the pole Friday for the penultimate race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, moving him another step closer to his sixth NASCAR title.
The five-time NASCAR champion set a track record with a lap of 139.222 mph in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to earn the top starting spot for Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway. The lap broke the mark of 138.766 set by Kyle Busch last November.
“Track records are awesome,” Johnson said after the qualifying session. “I don’t qualify on pole all that often, so I take great pride in them, especially track records. Very cool to do, and clearly a great time in the season and a great time in the Chase.”
Matt Kenseth will start 14th in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Kenseth trails Johnson by seven points with two races remaining in the Chase.
Denny Hamlin qualified second with a lap at 139.023 for JGR, but he went out much later in Friday’s session than teammate Kenseth.
Joey Logano qualified third in a Penske Racing Ford, and Kyle Busch was fourth as both of Kenseth’s teammates out-qualified the title contender.
Both Hamlin and Logano marveled at Johnson’s performance.
“He’s been in kill mode for a while,” Logano said. “When they are running for that championship, they find that extra notch that a lot of other teams can’t find.”
Johnson is coming off a dominating performance last week at Texas, where he led 255 of the 334 laps to win his sixth race of the season and break a tie with Kenseth in the standings.
“Last week, I ran second to him for a while and just to see the speed in his car — and then he unloads today and you watch in practice how fast his car was,” Logano said. “He’s got that next notch and he’s going really fast right now.”
Burton goes for 1,000
Jeff Burton will become the sixth driver to make 1,000 NASCAR national series starts when he competes this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. He plans to add to his total next season, but isn’t saying where.
“I feel that I know what I’m going to be doing, it’s just you all don’t,” Burton said.
Burton, 46, has been one of NASCAR’s most respected drivers during a career that’s spanned three decades.
He will likely gear back next season after an eight-year run with Richard Childress Racing this year. Burton says he has some plans in place in place for next season and is still working out details for the rest of 2014.
“I will be involved in the sport,” he said. “There is a place for me. I want to be here. I feel like I can contribute, so I would be surprised if five years from now, I wasn’t still involved in the sport.”
Burton has taken his time to sort out what he will do in 2014 and beyond. It will include some part-time racing, but beyond that he wouldn’t elaborate.
“Some things have taken a little longer than I thought they would take and some of that is because of me,” he said. “Some of that is because I slowed some stuff down and wanted to really think about it, some of it is because some situations have popped up that weren’t there a little bit ago. I feel very confident.”
Burton was one of NASCAR’s elite drivers in the late 1990s, winning six races in 1999 and four more in 2000. He wasn’t able to maintain that pace, though, particularly after moving to RCR in 2008.
Four of Burton’s 21 Sprint Cup victories have come with RCR and he is winless since taking the checkers twice in 2008. He has missed the Chase each of the past three seasons and enters this weekend’s race 19th in the season standings.
Still, Burton believes he can be a competitive driver as he closes in on 50.
Race car drivers don’t hit an expiration date like athletes in most of the other major sports. Mark Martin is still racing in the Sprint Cup Series at 54 and James Hylton just called it a career at 79 this year.